Week In Politics: Unrest In Egypt

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For more on the unrest in Egypt and what it will mean for the U.S. and the Obama administration, host Michele Norris speaks to our political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution; and Linda Chavez, chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a veteran of the Reagan White House.


For more on the unrest in Egypt and what it will mean for the U.S. and the Obama administration, we get some analysis now from our political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution; and Linda Chavez, chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a veteran of the Reagan White House. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, Washington Post): Thank you.

Ms. LINDA CHAVEZ (Chairman, Center for Equal Opportunity): Thank you.

NORRIS: Egypt is one of the United States' most important allies in the region. I want to begin by getting your assessment of the administration's handling of these events so far. It seems like the U.S. is in a bind as a long-time supporter of Hosni Mubarak, but also a very strong supporter of the right for peaceful protest. E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: The administration is in a bind here. There are so many ways for this to go wrong for the Obama administration. On the one side, the administration has been criticized by conservatives, neoconservatives, but also by some human rights liberals for not speaking up earlier and more strongly for democracy in Egypt.

On the other side, if the administration's calls now on President Mubarak's government to exercise restraint lead to his overthrow and his replacement by a government hostile to the U.S., then President Obama is going to find himself compared with Jimmy Carter, who after all said the shah should exercise restraint. He was replaced by the Islamic government.

The best outcome for the administration, and I think for everybody else, is if this made Egypt a more democratic country whether under Mubarak or under someone else. Another possibility is that Mubarak crushes this movement, but makes concessions on the one side or ends up with this sullen, unhappy country underneath him.

NORRIS: Linda Chavez, were you among the conservatives who were pressuring the administration to make a different move here? And I'm also wondering if you think the president, having given this very important speech in Cairo, is expected at some point to stand up and speak out on this issue.

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, I think the problem for the administration is it has this rather sketchy record when it comes to supporting human rights in pro-democratic movements.

In Iran, for example, after the farcical elections, the administration was not very outspoken, did not do a lot actually to help those who are in the pro-democratic movement. And, of course, the administration's claim was, well, if we did that, we'd be blamed. But we get blamed anyway.

So, I do think that the administration is in a very tough spot here. And it just shows how much difference 72 hours can make. You know, three days ago we were talking about the State of the Union, we're talking about the economy. But the fact is, when you're president of the United States, you may want to focus on jobs, you may want to focus on the economy.

But when you have an international crisis, and one of this potential magnitude - I mean, we're talking about the Suez Canal here. You're talking about 20,000 ships that go in and out of there and you're talking about a very, very volatile region of the world. And if Egypt falls, if the Muslim Brotherhood does step into that vacuum, it could be very, very bad news.

NORRIS: But the destiny is so closely linked to the fates of other countries -Israel, Iran, Syria. What's at stake here and how will this shape U.S. policy in the Middle East going forward?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I mean, the honest answer for all of us sitting right here right now is we don't know because it's so hard to see how this turns out. But Egypt is a linchpin. Egypt was - made peace with Israel. Egypt has been a force for moderation, put aside the domestic policy, for moderation toward Israel on the part of Arab countries.

And, you know, there are some opportunities right now, given a moderate Palestinian leadership on the West Bank that really seems to be making some progress. Obviously, turmoil in Egypt will only make progress in that area more difficult.

NORRIS: If the U.S. decides to try to apply pressure to Hosni Mubarak to respond to the demands of some these protestors, how might they do that? Might they use some sort of economic leverage since they provide billions of dollars to the Egyptian military?

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, that is exactly what Robert Gibbs hinted at is that there was going to be a review of financial aid to Egypt. We are a huge contributor to Egypt. I think they are the number two recipient of American foreign aid. And so, obviously, that can be a little bit of leverage that we can use to try to see democratic reforms.

But again, we have to be very careful because if the Mubarak regime does in fact collapse, we have to worry about what the Islamists who are in the region are going to do to take advantage of that situation. We've already got a problem now - Tunisia, for all of the problems in that country. Tunisia was, again, more moderate when it came to the whole Islamist issue. And there's Yemen, is also sort of teetering.

Mr. DIONNE: I think you see how complicated this is when you do compare it to the earlier democratic uprising in Iran. I disagree a little bit with Linda because I think the administration was right to worry about having the democratic movement there, in quotes, tainted by association with the United States. Nonetheless, our interests there were quite unambiguous. We're on the side of democracy and we would like the Ahmadinejad government to be replaced by a different government.

In this case, we're on the side of democracy, but we're very worried about the government that might replace Mubarak. And that's why the administration is on such tenterhooks.

NORRIS: Good to talk to both of you. Thank you very much. Have a good weekend.

Ms. CHAVEZ: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

NORRIS: That's E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution. And Linda Chavez, she's the chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, also a veteran of the Reagan White House.

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